When progressives protest voter suppression in the United States, they tend to focus their fire on the myriad ways that (Republican-led) states actively restrict the franchise — among them, felon disenfranchisement laws that have removed 6 million (disproportionately nonwhite, left-leaning) voters from the electorate; voter ID requirements that make casting a ballot more arduous for the poor; and the discriminatory allocation of polling places that forces nonwhite voters to wait in line twice as long as other Americans.
All these are serious affronts to democratic values. But none are as significant an obstacle to popular sovereignty as the passive suppression inherent to America’s approach to voter registration.
At the time of America’s last general election, roughly 70 percent of our nation’s eligible voters were registered to cast a ballot; for Germany, that figure was 91 percent; for Canada, 93; and Australia, 96. The massive disparity between the United States and these other Western countries is not a reflection of Americans’ distaste for civic engagement, but rather our government’s lack of interest in promoting democratic rule. Canada treats voter registration as the state’s responsibility; America, treats it as the individual voter’s. Which is to say, our low voter participation rate is a choice. It wouldn’t be difficult for the federal government to ensure that upwards of 90 percent of eligible voters were registered by each November. It just chooses not to. And that choice has major implications for public policy. While 70 percent of eligible American were registered to vote in 2016, only 42.7 percent of eligible Hispanic Americans were.
Thus, one of the most encouraging developments in American politics over the past three years has been the spread of automatic voter registration (AVR) laws. In 2015, no state in the U.S. automatically registered its citizens to vote whenever they interacted with the its DMV, Obamacare exchange, department of social services, or other state bureaucracy. On Thursday, Maryland became the 12th state to pass a law mandating such a practice.
Currently, there are about 500,000 unregistered voters in Maryland, according to a 2017 report from its state government. An analysis from the progressive think tank Demos suggests that AVR could bring 400,000 of those Marylanders into the electorate.
That projection is based in part on developments in Oregon, where the implementation of AVR brought 270,000 new voters onto the rolls in 2016, giving the state the highest bump in general election turnout of any state in the union that year. The new law also helped increase the registration rate among nonwhite voters by 26 percentage points.
The spread of AVR is part of a broader proliferation of democracy-expanding reforms that Democrats have begun pushing in recent years, often in direct response to Republican efforts to suppress voter participation among left-leaning constituencies. Since the start of this year, 514 bills expanding access to the ballot have been introduced in state legislatures, according to a recent report from the Brennan Center for Justice.